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Precious, occasionally pretentious tale of childish confidences and innocence lost in a dusty Italian coastal town: the third outing from England’s chronicler of conflicted childhood trauma.

As he did in the creepy Sophie (2003), Burt has an accomplished and somewhat enviably established adult, Alex Carlisle, gripped by a peculiar compulsion that unslips his mind, sending him into a Faulknerian storm of murky memories and flashbacks that culminate in a tortured revelation of guilt. Alex is a successful, self-absorbed artist with an important retrospective about to open at a London gallery. He returns to his childhood home in Altesa after the death of Lena, the kindly cook who looked after him, and shielded him from the wrath of his English parents, who thought the young Alex was lazy, or somehow mentally deficient. The house is a mess and, while repairing it, Alex is overwhelmed by a midlife crisis that begins with memories of the idyllic summer he met Jamie, the son of an English father and Italian mother who was two years older, and Jamie’s bold, precocious cousin Anna. The trio’s bonds are cemented when they discover a wounded man in ruined church. Believing him to be a legendary “hermit,” they discover a bullet hole in his leg and try to nurse the man back to health. Anna finds the man's rifle in a wrecked car and, though the three have every reason to expect he’s a dangerous political terrorist, they swear to keep secret the man’s presence, and their role in his recovery. The burden of this secret grows heavier when Alex’s art talent is awakened at an English boarding school that Jamie is also attending. Only Jamie sees the terrorist, and obsessive, latently sexual images of himself and Anna, in Alex’s art. The secret also inspires Anna to choose a career of violent political activism in which Alex is a less-than-reliable recruit. Burt’s dense, dizzy layers of flashbacks will congeal around two climaxes.

Overheated, relentless naval-gazing tragedy of midlife crisis and mispent youth.

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 2004
ISBN: 0-345-44656-9
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Ballantine
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2004


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